Dear Manhattan Country School Community,
The summer of 2017 is almost in the rearview mirror. The 2017-2018 school year at Manhattan Country School starts soon, and I can’t wait. Never has a summer put a school, its mission and program, and the diverse community we build together in such sharp relief.
In early July, we were saddened by the news that MCS Founder Gus Trowbridge passed away. I will miss the stories he told about turning his vision into reality. Constant debate, adjustments and change filled those stories, as well as encouragement to have dreams and be resilient as one works to achieve them. This year we will have a chance to revisit the joys and challenges of establishing what still stands out as a unique learning environment. The 2017-2018 Manhattan Country School Calendar features photographs of our students juxtaposed with quotes from Gus on educational equity, diversity, progressive education, change and the Farm. His influence still anchors our evolving practices as the school grows to double its original size.
The Trowbridge family will hold a celebration of Gus’ life at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY), on November 18, at 2 p.m. The MCS community is invited.
In late August, there were poignant reminders of the urgency of a school like MCS that makes central tenets out of ongoing education and activism in the fight for equality and human dignity. The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia is singular and demands that we add our voice to the chorus that deplores injustice and bigotry. We must also clearly and unequivocally condemn groups that espouse racial and religious hatred, white supremacist ideology and violence. We mourn the deaths in Charlottesville and hail the generation that includes young citizens like Heather Heyer, whose abbreviated life was about making our democracy more equitable and more just through peaceful protest.
These bookmarks on the summer of 2017 will be the landscape against which our 2017-2018 school year unfolds. MCS’ history began during the Civil Rights Movement and we have remained steadfast about the importance of an inclusive mission. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s influence on our founders is reflected in the songs we sing at assemblies, older students’ study of social movements and the speeches our eighth graders share on the MLK March. Students’ artwork hangs throughout the building, starting on the first floor with arpilleras composed of applique squares the 9-10s stitch on the theme of change. Continuing up the stairs is a banner that reads “Refugees Welcome Here.” A Gender Project initiated in the 1990s provides a foundation for re-examining our policies and practices with an eye to ensuring equity for LGBT children and families. A renewed interest in farm-school connections is evident in the apples and mural in the lobby, our Lower and Upper School trips to Central Park and the snacks and lunches we serve.
MCS’ continuing work will mean sharing strategies and resources about ways to help children gain insight into subjects adults don’t always feel confident discussing. Some of those strategies have been perfected over the years by dedicated MCS teachers. Others are a work-in-progress, taking into account changing demographics, new technologies and research on children’s gender development. In our work, we often find ourselves reaching out to like-minded organizations, including Teaching Tolerance, Rethinking Schools and Child Mind Institute.
Our program encourages multicultural dialogue, rich learning experiences and a rare immersion in community-building in classrooms and at the Farm. Opportunities to ask questions unveil common purpose among differences and the deliberate lessons about identity and empathy contribute to better understandings of the ways power and privilege work. Engaging children’s thoughts and questions is also what makes it possible to feel hopeful about alternatives that become habits lasting a lifetime.
Achieving all our goals is neither a small nor a dispassionate undertaking. The work happens in small meaningful steps along the way. In a few weeks we’ll start to see the tools in job charts and risk-taker charts. There will be signs reading “I feel ____ when you ____,” “What I would like is _______,” “Ýo puedo _______,” “Something I can teach is _____.” Some classrooms will have contracts posted on walls that each student will sign to establish agreements about ways of treating one another. Right up until June, those will serve as guides for learning from mistakes.
2017-2018 will launch MCS’ next 50 years with room for a sense of hope and possibility about the future. Expanding Purpose: The Campaign for the Future of Manhattan Country School supports our mission to create and serve an authentically diverse community and to train teachers to do the same. “Sustain,” “Cultivate,” “Grow” invites the partnership and generosity of our supporters. The commitment to children’s education in an equitable and economically diverse community is ours now, building on the vision Gus and his wife, Marty, articulated from the beginning. This year we have 268 students (our largest enrollment ever). They hail from 27 zip codes, speak more than two dozen languages and define themselves increasingly as multiracial. A hint of what lies ahead for them might be gleaned from reflections written by last year’s graduating class.
“I have had 10 years of learning how to think analytically, how to present an argument and back it up with facts, how to look through multiple perspectives and find my own within them, and how to be part of a diverse, inclusive community. We are taught to spread what we know about integration, freedom of speech, social justice, and so much more. We are taught to stand up for what we believe in and push indifference aside. We have been taught to not sit and watch but to act, march and peacefully protest.”
“MCS has helped me learn that meaningful action is action that addresses the root cause of an issue, and true commitments are more than simple charity. MCS is a community that genuinely cares about social justice and activism. In its genuine valuing of diversity, MCS teaches us to engage with instead of avoid real conversations about difference and inequality.”
In late August 1982, Gus interviewed me over Labor Day weekend for the Upper School Spanish teacher position at MCS. After hearing my stories about teaching children of migrant farmworkers in Indiana and researching bilingual language development in Puerto Rican communities of Boston and East Harlem, Gus asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “Training teachers” and “influencing education policy” was the answer I gave then and remains true today. Now I ask Gus’ question of every candidate I interview. Each September, no matter what lies in the rearview mirror, I look forward to all that is to come.
Manhattan Country School
Manhattan Country School Farm-raised crops are celebrated in the Farm’s garden, greenhouse, kitchen and dining room each and every day. We eat student-prepared meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Freshly harvested peppers, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers line the taco bar. Yogurt, created with milk from our own cow, is topped with blueberries and strawberries picked by MCS students and MCS Farm-raised broccoli, onions and shiitake mushrooms are used to make risotto.
Ironically, one of our most vital and visible crops, hay, is often taken for granted. MCS students handle bales of hay on a daily basis during farm trips. They drop it from the mow and stack it, move it by tractor and cart from the dairy barn to the steer pen and, of course, feed it directly to cattle and sheep. However, the hay mow is almost always full with nearly 3,000 bales by the time farm trips begin in September.
This year, due to steady summer rains, farmers in the northeast have been delayed in harvesting their hay crop. Hay, once mowed, can take several days to dry prior to baling. As Spanish novelist Miguel De Cervantes said, “Let us make hay while the sun shines.” This week, seventh and eighth grade Norte homeroom had the rare experience of both watching the mechanized work of the hay harvest and throwing and stacking bales in the hay mow. Hay in the Catskills contains various grasses and legumes, such as red and white clover.
The hay was mowed on Monday, tedded on Tuesday, then raked and baled on Wednesday by a neighboring farmer who provides this service. Mowing lays the hay out in flat rows; tedding swirls and flips the hay over to dry all sides. The hay is then raked into long windrows and then scooped, compacted, tied with twine and launched into the wagon by the baler. The kids and adults were then responsible for unloading wagons containing about one hundred bales each. Some people tossed bales from the wagon to the mow below, while others stacked them tightly. We unloaded six full wagons, which yielded approximately 550 bales. The group, all sweaty and tired after this type of work, then settled in for a delicious dinner of chicken and vegetable stir fry, prepared by two classmates.
During lunchtime last year, I would occasionally tell the 8-9s stories about the early days of MCS. Usually they were stories involving animals – pets I remember from school or animals at the Farm. Funny stories were clearly preferred ones. I began to run out of animal stories so, at their request, I would tell them again. Without directly saying so, I am sure I was communicating to them that MCS was one of my special places growing up.
Last week these same children, the ones I cannot get used to calling 9-10s, were busy making maps of their special places:
My room with my workspace
My grandparents’ backyard
The camp cabin that I loved
A Victorian garden
My special dock
My bedroom, also known as my corner, with my Venus flytrap
Children easily recalled summer days while simultaneously enjoying all being together at the start of the school year. Indeed, these are just the first few days of school, especially for the youngest classes. It takes time for the routines of each classroom to be practiced and learned. It takes even more time for children to get to know new classmates and teachers, and for the group to learn to work together.
Stories told or read aloud help to build the formation of classroom communities and stories of all kinds inspire wonderful discussions in classrooms of all ages. Sharing stories will remain a treasured routine all year long.
Recently, the 8-9s listened to The Dot, a story that tells how a child’s creativity is gently encouraged by her teacher.
"Just make a mark and see where it takes you,” offered the teacher.
The 8-9s were asked to think about something they would like to improve or accomplish this year:
To read longer books
To become a better artist
To make another series of comic books at school
To get better at listening to my teachers
To do better at math
Telling the time (this one was made in the design of a clock)
To work on multiplication and football
Focus more on school when I’m at school and focus more on family and friends when I’m home
The 6-7s read Amazing Grace last week. It begins like this:
Grace was a girl who loved stories.
She didn’t mind if they were read to her or told to her
Or made up in her own head.
Grace just loved stories.
After listening to the story the 6-7s had much to say:
“That was a wonderful book.”
“A girl can be a boy and a boy can be a girl. And you can be brown and be Peter Pan.”
“A boy can be a boy and a girl can be a girl.”
“You can choose to be both.”
“You get to choose who you are, but don’t choose to do bad things and go to jail. Be a good person.”
“Sometimes when you do good things, good things will come back to you.”
The 4-5s heard the story, William’s Doll. Toward the end, the grandmother gets a doll for William.
But his father was upset.
“He’s a boy!” he said to William’s grandmother.
“He has a basketball and an electric train
and a workbench to build things with.
Why does he need a doll?”
William’s grandmother smiled.
“He needs it,” she said,
“to hug and to cradle
and to take to the park
when he’s a father like you,
he’ll know how to take care of his baby
and feed him and love him and bring him the things he wants,
like a doll
so that he can practice being a father.”
The 4-5s enjoyed discussing the story:
“A boy can have a doll if he wants one.”
“Anyone can play with a doll.”
“Anyone can wear any color they want to.”
“I am practicing to be a Mom.”
“I am pretending to be a Mom, too, and now I am a really little one.”
The 4-5s listened to another story, Play with Me. In the story, the girl tries to catch the animals, but each time they rush away. Finally she sits quietly and patiently by the pond, and slowly the animals start coming back.
Teachers asked the 4-5s why they thought the animals were returning. A child answered, “because she's just chillin’.”
During the 8-9s’ first science class with Ian, they are invited to offer up how it felt to listen to the singing bowl:
“It felt calm and nice.”
“I could hear it for a long time after you stopped.”
“My mom has a singing bowl and she prays.”
Next, they come up with agreements for the class. Ian explains he likes to call them agreements rather than rules, so that they all agree on ways to create an environment where everyone feels safe and comfortable.
One child offers an agreement: “Don’t distract people.”
“Ok, great,” says Ian. “Now can you change that sentence around so we are not using the word don’t?”
Allow people to concentrate becomes the first agreement.
Use the materials in a safe way becomes the second.
Be aware of your surroundings becomes the third.
Listen to the singing bowl and pay attention becomes the fourth.
Respect other people’s ideas and keep the laughter inside if you are tempted to laugh at what someone says. This becomes the final agreement.
Many classes work on writing up class agreements, or contracts. Here is another example so far:
How Do Community Members Take Care of Each Other?
By helping each other
If a friend gets hurt or is sad, be a good friend and help them
Help them when they are scared
Help them tie their shoe
Listen to each other
Use nice words
Include each other
Children in the 5-6s were asked to draw a picture about what they wanted to be able to do in the 5-6s this year:
To work with other kids and build things
To have fun in art
To run in the park
To learn about gardening
To help the teachers and be nice to friends
To be able to make a big party in the 5-6s, because it is really fun to have parties and also to get exercising
To have fun and learn to take care of my class, and to take care of my teachers, too
To get better at talking to new people and not pretending that I am shy
A new 5-6s child had this to say when I asked whether she was enjoying school so far:
“My Mom picked out the perfect school.”
On Friday afternoon, the 9-10s had a language arts time with Chloe and Qing that began in the art room. Later, they went outdoors to the courtyard space as they investigated the plants and created sentences using various parts of speech to describe the various herbs.
“The citronella is WAY spicy!”
“Did you know you can eat nasturtium plants?”
“The lemon verbena is my favorite. I rub it between my fingers, and I could smell it all day!”
“Look – chamomile grows tall like this with these little flowers. We can make tea out of it.”
“The lavender is beautiful. I love the smell. I made a perfume with lavender and honey and other herbs.”
On the second day of school a 7-8s’ teacher read Wemberly Worried to the class.
Wemberly worried in the morning.
She worried at night.
And she worried throughout the day.
The 7-8s were asked to reflect on their feelings about the start of a new school year:
“I was nervous to meet the new people.”
“I was worried about new teachers.”
“I thought I would be the littlest, but I am not worried about that now.”
“I didn’t know if I would be able to do the homework.”
“I didn’t know if things would be too hard for me, and I worried about the pencils not being sharpened.”
“I didn’t know if I was going to like this new school.”
“I thought there would be a bathroom inside the classroom.”
“I thought there might not be enough chairs or Legos.”
“I worried that the classroom would not be ready this year and also that everyone would forget how to spell my name.”
While adults worry about the state of the world for countless reasons, young children’s lives are often focused on the here and now, understandably.
During one of the first days of school, the 7-8s found an injured bird at the park and they called the Wild Bird Fund nearby to notify them. Of course, it helped that the children knew so much about birds and this neighborhood resource from their bird study last year.
In time, children and teachers will think about more ways to take action in manners that suit children’s developmental stages. In the meantime, children will continue to spend their days exploring, discovering, listening, asking questions, finding solutions, and working together.
At all ages, an important message that children will receive again and again is that they will know they can express their viewpoints and they will be asked to listen to the viewpoints of others. In doing so as a class each year, they will learn about and discuss issues that have particular meaning for them, and ones that begin to broaden their scope of understanding about their community and the world around them.
And, over their time here, they will be making their mark and seeing where it takes them – individually and as a group.
This talk was given at the September 18, 2107 Parents' Association Meeting.
It’s the beginning of the school year, a new school for some, a new class or grade for others. A new landscape that doesn’t always feel like progress is a one way street. Race and culture, DACA and immigration, hurricanes and earthquakes, war and peace. These are topics that students don’t leave at Manhattan Country School’s front door. Instead, we listen carefully to children’s questions and comments, purposefully nurture classroom environments where teachers provide safe spaces for discussion, and pay attention to lessons learned from MCS history that serve as our roadmap today. “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” by Nikole Hannah-Jones in The New York Times Magazine is a vivid reminder of what’s at stake 50 years after MCS was founded and more than 60 after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Over the summer I was inspired to spend time reading some recent research to help me talk about MCS with audiences as intimate as this and also more far afield. I’ve learned to be a firm believer in a pre-K-to-eight school model. “Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework,” a University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study, synthesizes decades of research that is pertinent. Their findings highlight things I know are part of an MCS education. “Developmental experiences can happen in all settings.” They “require reflection and action.” They also substantiate the value of developmental experiences that build a foundation for self-regulation (awareness of one’s self and one’s surroundings), knowledge and skills, mindsets (beliefs and attitudes), and values. Their definition of “success” also feels familiar, “having the agency to make active choices about one’s life path, possessing the competencies to adapt to the demands of different contexts, and incorporating different aspects of one’s self into an integrated identity.”
"Putting It All Together," a study that The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development released, concludes that “curriculum that addresses social and emotional dimensions of learning helps all students thrive academically and prepare for challenges beyond school.” The four schools that serve as their case studies have a lot in common with MCS. One thing that distinguishes us is the 50 years that the work has been happening here.
A strong social curriculum, where kids are learning how to interact with one another, share with one another, be a part of a community, take their work seriously and have a sense of purpose, makes their academic learning richer.
Through principles of a “growth mindset,” students are helped to expect and embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, are given time to reflect on their mistakes and try again, and they are encouraged to learn from one another.
Curriculum is designed to allow for divergent ways of thinking and support students’ “productive struggle.” Curriculum engages students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice and religious intolerance in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. Teachers must feel ownership of the curriculum and be given time to plan and collaborate.
Bank Street College of Education, our partner for 50 years, publishes an Occasional Paper Series, and those delve explicitly into teaching and progressive pedagogy. Last spring, Alisa Algava visited MCS and Castle Bridge School, a progressive public school in District 6, with her class. She comes to show the next generation of teachers what she writes about in one of those paper, “Beyond Child-Centered Constructivism: A Call for Culturally Sustaining Progressive Pedagogy.”
“If we want progressive education to live up to its potential for all kids and for our society, pedagogical shifts that prioritize sociopolitical understanding are needed in every kind of progressive school, with children and families of all races and ethnicities, heritage languages, family structures, and economic backgrounds. With culturally sustaining pedagogies we can take a step closer to truly democratic and perhaps even socially transformative public education.”
With these three studies in mind, we take up a new school year, build a community together, and commit to talking with children about the world. We question our assumptions, appreciate the evolution of our program, embrace what all the teachers and subject areas bring to the table, understand the experiences at the Farm, and stand together as children develop a set of values that turns them into committed students and activists. I look forward to continuing a dialogue with all of you as the year progresses.
Delivered at the September 18, 2017 Parents' Association Meeting
At the Upper School assembly on the first day of school, we played Follow the Leader. Karen chose a few students to leave the room and then established a secret leader to decide on the movement for the group. The students who had left returned to guess who among the 80 students was changing the movement as we all followed her. For our second activity, we made a rainstorm. Flannery and I led the students in making four simple movements. With everyone doing each movement, it sounded like the soft patter of rain building to thunder rolling across the gym. Afterward, we talked about what the two activities have in common as a lead-in to this year’s Upper School theme: catalyst. I asked the students if they knew the definition of catalyst, and though the word was clearly familiar to them, they weren’t sure how to articulate what it means. One student guessed that catalyst might be from the root word cattle and have something to do with cows. Once we arrived as a group to the actual definition, she raised her hand again to clarify: “What I meant to say is that a cow bell is a catalyst for calling the cattle back to the barn.”
The beginning of the year starts with the usual building of routines, re-establishing community and sparking students’ imaginations. I finally got to see Alaina light her hands on fire to kick off the fifth grade study of energy. A clear example of a reaction to a catalyst, she plunges her hands into soap bubbles filled with gas and then sets them alight. The students begin to practice explaining what they have observed, trying to figure out how Alaina can hold such a large flame without being burned.
Even though we’ve only had a few days of school, classes are already busy learning – practicing their Spanish introductions in fifth grade and how to talk about pasatiempos in eighth grade, learning how to write racket code to delineate the order of operations for a computer solving a problem, applying the y=mx+b format to their current understanding of linear equations, and taking trips to the Farm for the end of the harvest. The first group of seventh and eighth graders had the lucky job of naming the new baby cow – Beef Stroganoff.
The fifth graders are delving into their study of sustainability with a study of food systems. They’re learning about how food appears on their plates, exploring the farm-to-table process from agriculture, factories, packaging and shipping to selling and consuming. They’re also getting ready for the journey of fifth grade. The guiding questions at their last community meeting were: What does it mean to be a good friend? How do you know if you are a good friend to others? Another key piece of their curriculum is debate. Each week they’ll debate different topics. Shani led them in a discussion about what it means to debate. One commented, “Debates can be about anything – with your sibling about who gets what, at school about whether or not we should have vending machines, or between presidents.” Another said, “The judges don’t pick which side is better because everyone has their own opinion, but who has the best argument and the most facts.” Toward the end, Shani told them that they had already started preparing for debate in the 9-10s. The students were puzzled, not remembering what they could’ve done. After a few guesses, Shani reminded them of the persuasive letters they wrote the year before. “Ohhhh…” they sighed in unison, and then one popped up with, “Then debate is about getting your parents to say yes.”
The sixth graders opened their year with a discussion about the question, “What does it mean to be American?” This question is an introduction to their future studies of the formation of the American government and later the Civil Rights Movement. They began broadly:
“It depends on how you see yourself. For me, I consider myself to be a Latin American.”
“You get different politics from your family, so it’s not that if you live in America you only believe one thing.”
“Most people think about equality and jobs and how we should run the government. In other countries they might think differently about the government.”
The conversation went on, with students jumping from extradition to DACA to why people protest.
“But some rules might be unfair, like Trump is saying that they should build a wall and pay for it, but that’s not fair. They can say no.”
“There are other ways to protest than marching, like writing articles to share your perspective. Protesting is not mandatory.”
In the end, they realized that being American is about the big ideas, but also about our day-to-day interactions.
“There are other responsibilities that Americans have – treating each other with respect. When you’re in the subway you can be kind and give up your seat to an elderly person. Treating everyone as an equal and not seeing others differently will help build the community. If you’re not being respectful and kind, you’re not improving your community.”
In their first child development class, the seventh graders make a list of traits they associate with 4- and 5-year-olds. Here are some of the traits they listed:
sometimes energized and can’t sit still
sometimes very emotional
kind of shy
younger than you think and remember that you were
cute (but they all have another side)
fun to be with
scared of or want to impress bigger kids
short attention span
like to run around
usually have to be talked into doing things
a little oblivious to consequences
don’t like being told “no”
Then Cynthia asked them which of the traits also describe seventh graders. They starred the ones that apply to them, too. Most of them were a match, except for “don’t mind being naked.” At the end of the conversation, one of the seventh graders observed, “Oh, we’re kind of the same.”
The seventh and eighth graders are engaged in a two-week study of power, one week here in the city and one week at the Farm. I sat in on a class with Tom where the eighth grade was listening to and analyzing Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. Dr. King talks about our human desire to be recognized, to be first, to be the best. He explains the role this desire can play in racial prejudice, describing a prison guard who should have been protesting for higher wages alongside African-Americans but did not because he would rather hold on to the superiority of being white. The students discussed the sermon and then made connections to what’s happening today. One said, “'Make America Great Again’ is another example of the drum major instinct. [The campaign] makes people feel proud to be American. It might make poor white people feel good because they can think, ‘I’m American. I’m better than those refugees or immigrants…. It connects to what we studied in history last year – divide and conquer. The oppressor is dividing them because it keeps them from making change.” Another shared, “If you don’t harness [your drum major instinct], you’ll push others down to get to the top.” They concluded with, “Dr. King is saying that if you want to be the best, help people who don’t have food or who live in poverty rather than working for shallow reasons like having money or luxurious things.” “We have to work for peace….”
The activism committee has an unprecedented 20 students this year. Half of the seventh and eighth graders want to be a part of determining what this year’s project will be. Their list of possible topics is long, and it stayed on the white board for a while, reminding passersby of how much work we have to do. Some of their topics include:
Mental Illness Discrimination
The adults in the building are talking about how students will respond to the events of the summer – the protests in Charlottesville and the political response that followed, the pledge to end DACA, an earthquake, and two catastrophic hurricanes. These topics are very present for the students as well, of course. But they didn’t arrive on the first day bursting to talk about them. Instead, they come up as examples and context as we have our usual curriculum conversations. The students already know that we will ask them about injustice and encourage them to think about how they will take action, and the events of the summer are one more reason to get to work.
In sixth grade science, Alaina opened with an exercise where they pretend they are settlers in Jamestown, an introduction to space exploration by returning to what they learned in the 8-9s about people settling what was to them a new world. They have to identify the problems the settlers faced and what their needs were. All of the small groups came up with similar needs – water, food, medicine, shelter and warm clothes. One pair realized that the settlers would need something more than the tools of basic survival. In order to build a community, they would need a leader.
In a year where our theme is catalyst and where our students are wrestling with how to address serious problems in the world, all while going through their own journey and struggle just to grow up, we know they will find different ways to lead and even more ways to support by following a good idea. Each of them brings their own spark, and they are the catalysts changing the world.
This talk was given at the September 18, 2107 Parents' Association Meeting.